Being a rookie isn’t easy in the Yukon Quest. If you don’t live in Alaska or the Yukon, it just got significantly harder. If you’ve never seen any part of the trail or haven’t even mushed your team in Alaska in the depth of winter, well, now the odds are stacking up against you. Coming from New Hampshire and being as “green” of a rookie as you can imagine, I had plenty to learn. I made some mistakes and I had some things go really well, but in the end, my rookie run in the 2008 Yukon Quest was a continuous education in the art of distance mushing. Experience is a priceless and irreplaceable tool that builds confidence. For a rookie with no experience, confidence comes from faith in yourself and your team. There were times during the Quest my confidence was sky high with the aurora, and there were other times when my confidence sank to the depths of my frozen toes. The quality and proper marking of the trail was my biggest unknown and fear. Unfortunately, my fears were too often realized in the first half of the race. My dogs had never gone this far, and the trail I’d only seen in my dreams didn’t really count. We learned more than I can remember and gained the experience that only finishing this race can give you. Here are a few lessons this rookie learned along the way… Qualifying races of 200-300 miles may help prepare a musher for some things they’ll see on their first thousand miler, but those races are still a lot closer to the 20-30 mile sprint runs than a thousand miles of constant challenges. For the last five years my team and I had competed in the only distance race in the east, the Can-Am 250. The Can-Am runs on seldom-to-never used trails and almost always has soft, slow plodding over long runs through nearly constant hills. It’s a good test of the mental toughness of a team. My other qualifying race was the Taiga 300 in Alaska, with lots of wide-open lake and river travel that just doesn’t exist in New England. It also has a 250-mile stretch of trail without re-supply, which helped me learn how to pack for the Quest’s numerous long runs between checkpoints. I thought my qualifiers had me pretty ready for Quest. Lesson learned? Run the most difficult qualifiers you can, but expect that nothing is going to have you totally ready for what the Quest throws at you. The trail over Eagle Summit is pretty extreme, but time of day and the weather can help tip the odds for or against you. I planned the whole first day of my race around getting over that mountain in the daylight. I wanted every advantage I could gain up there. Bank to bank glare ice on Eagle Creek right out of the restart at Mile 101 set a negative tone for our climb up the mountain. After a quick rest stop to cheer my leaders back up, we chugged up the windblown sidehill, across the top, down the steep drop, and on to fifty below temperatures in Central. At least it wasn’t blowing 40 mph anymore. Lesson learned? Be flexible enough to set yourself up for success by good run/rest scheduling, monitoring weather and trail reports, and have a well-rested, happy team before the things like Eagle Summit. Who knows; it might almost be fun. The biggest challenge in our Quest this year was the Yukon River. Having never seen anything like that before, my team and I were all a bit overwhelmed at times. The trail varied from a snowy, trenched-in highway at its best, to side-slope, glare ice mixed with sharp and jagged jumble ice and little snow to cover it. Nearly as bad was the long, wide-open and wind-blown glare ice at the mouth of the Nation River. But my troubles began before I even got to the Yukon River. My 60-pound Hawkeye stumbled 5 miles before Circle. I thought it was just a misstep in the rough overland trail between Birch Creek and Circle. I immediately loaded him anyway for the short ride in to the checkpoint. As soon as I got to Circle, the vets looked him over, watched him perk up, eat a full meal, and said he was good to go. He’s an honest dog and Hawkeye did look normal. With vet-team encouragement, but against a feeling in my gut, I signed out with him in the team after a big 9-hour break. Ten or twelve miles out, after crossing a nasty little section of jumble ice, Hawkeye stumbled again, this time on smooth river trail. It was still 50-plus miles to Slaven’s dog-drop and I decided right away to empty my sled of the straw and dog food, load Hawkeye, turn the team around, and return him to Circle. I never should have ignored the feeling I had that something wasn’t right with him. It cost me a whole run/rest cycle and let a whole group of other teams slip farther ahead.Lesson learned? Trust your feelings with the dogs, and when you’ve got 160 miles to the next checkpoint over the worst trail you’ll ever see coming up, drop that questionable dog to the capable hands of the vet staff. Regrouping at Slaven’s renowned hospitality, I got sucked in to tales of woe to be found on the trail ahead. “The worst is yet to come.” “It’s taken the leaders around 11 hours just to go the 60-ish miles to Trout Creek.” “Don’t run this next section in the dark.” The only way I could get to the really rough stuff in the daylight would be take a long rest and leave just before dawn. It wasn’t hard to talk me in to that with warm water inside, food cooked to order, and a soft mattress upstairs to lay my sleeping bag and weary head upon. It was really relaxing to be at the quiet dog-drop after the hectic and not so accommodating Circle City. After waking up from a great nap, feeding dogs, eating breakfast myself, and putting on dry clothes, I called the team back out on to the Yukon River, passing a serious lack of markers through the nastiest trail we’d ever seen. However, the dogs and this driver were all refreshed, and we covered the trail to Eagle faster than all but one team in the race. Lesson learned? If you are going to take a long break, do it at a place and time that you and your team can get quality rest and the resulting benefits. I had the team settled in to a nice even run and rest cycle out of Eagle (why’d THAT take so long???), over American Summit, down the cavernous Forty Mile River, and to the site of the same name, where Sebastian Jones offered dog water and a bed to this very sick musher. Although throwing up off the sled for 50 miles isn’t that much fun, I would have preferred it to the fever I developed that had me shivering while wearing more clothes than when it was 60 below on Birch Creek. However, the team kept doing exactly what they had been doing. They maintained a nice steady clip all the way to Dawson, while it was all I could do just to stay awake and on the sled. Lesson learned? Be consistent with your team despite how you feel physically and emotionally and they’ll stay consistent for you. Although we didn’t know what we were getting in to at the start line in Fairbanks, we had done everything we knew how to do in order to be ready for the Yukon Quest. Twelve days, nine hours, fifty-eight minutes, and 1000 miles later in Whitehorse, I couldn’t believe it was over already. Lessons learned? If you have faith in and respect for your team, remain confident and focused, and work hard but have fun, you can do things you used to only dream about. We’re still dreaming and hope to be able to get back to use all this experience…It’d be great to NOT be a rookie! Mike Ellis maintains a kennel of Siberian huskies with his wife, Sue, in Rumney, New Hampshire. Visit their virtual kennel at


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